Smoke and Zinc

Visiting the 6th Salon des Cafés, Bars, Tabacs, Brasseries

Tabac sign Paris:- Tuesday, 19. March 1996:- You put your feet down in Paris, in France, and the first thing you will notice are the presence of establishments, often simply called, 'Bar - Café - Tabac.' These are the variety shops of the soul. On an average day in France, a quarter of the population passes some time in a cafe, a bar, a tabac, or a brasserie. Hardly any of these people are sinners.

These places invariably have what you need: a drink, a bit of food, a place to sit, a telephone; tobacco products, candy, postage stamps; a simple gift or a ticket of chance; they are refueling stations that provide fundamental and elementary needs - shelter, food, companionship - and a place to catch your breath - if you don't mind a little smoke.

Since Roman times when centurions lounged around dicing in wine taverns, Europeans have been passing more of their time in bars than in churches. Somehow, soda fountains have never really caught the public's fancy - although there are continental Italian varieties with ice cream and cakes, that usually serve some drink - these never attempt to fulfill the vast variety of functions that are the standard fare of the Bar-Café-Tabac.

The number of Bar-Café-Tabacs is diminishing slightly; 'Brasseries' are holding their own, and fast-food outlets, although without the essential ambiance, have nearly doubled in the past few years: altogether they number 167,000 in France and employ 350,000 people.

In view of the importance to life itself in France and in Paris, I decided to visit the Salon at the Porte de Versailles today. This is a salon reserved for people in the business of operating the places, or of supplying them.

Unlike most other salons, where there are no-smoking signs everywhere, where there are elementary fast-food buffets-bars; this salon featured the opposite. Seita, the unique tobacco-products distributor in France, had several stands. The suppliers of bar decor, equipment, and beverages, had bars. Seita was selling its products, but many of the 'bars' were offering free samples of their wares - so in many ways this must be the most un-salon of all the salons in Paris - you could just a well be in your neighborhood bar.

That explained the reason why my expired press-card was treated with a certain skepticism: this guy is a freeloader! Here I confess - my total consumption: one extremely tiny espresso, one slice of 'pub-grub,' and I smoked three of my own cigarettes; and there were no free ashtrays. Despite the dubious validity of the press-card, I cannot be bought - unless you count what I actually had - in which case, they 'got' me cheap.

Glitter, glitter, the more taps the better;
pils, 'brown' and bitter


Tiny corner of small Nectoux 'zinc.'
If you have spent as much time in bars as I have, you probably love the look - those plated beer taps, the glasses, the mirrors, the bar tops themselves - the 'zinc' - no two look alike, yet all are variations of recurring themes.

A custom-made behind-the-bar, two-sink, glass-wash fountain, piece of stainless steel, can cost 75,000 francs - for a simple model without accessories. An Italian espresso coffee machine can cost a lot more than an Italian espresso car - and you cannot buy the coffee that goes with it in any supermarket, as it is a special type and grind, reserved for these grand and speedy machines.

The elite of bar tops is the 'zinc' - a special alloy of tin, with varying amounts of antimony, copper and lead added - in English it would be called pewter. A 'zinc' is kind to glasses and kind to the ears; it is easy to clean, and it lasts practically forever - even though it is soft - with age it gains character. 'Zincs' were once so common in Paris that 'zinc' was a synonym for bar.

Out of a one-time total of 15, only one manufacturer of 'zincs' remains active in the Paris region, and that is the Ateliers Nectoux. This family firm continues to hand-craft 'zincs,' with beginning of the century borders and trimmings. Nectoux bar tops, old and new, are found throughout Paris today, as well as far afield as in Denmark, Sweden, and even Japan.

A 'tabac' is a place to buy tobacco products. Tabacs are often located in bars, and they can be spotted from a distance by their distinctively shaped signs, called 'carrots,' always in red.

Within a bar, the tabac usually has its own counter, and you can usually buy many more things than just tobacco there. Many sell postage stamps, tax stamps for paying fines, and now, phone cards; plus pens, lighters, small gifts, and candy. Many tabac counters are also the selling points for all the various lotteries - and a busy place will have a line for cigarettes and another for punters. (Some bar-tabacs are also PMUs - off-track betting centres - with race results direct from the tracks; and they often open Sunday mornings for the afternoon races, especially if there is also a nearby Sunday morning marché.)

Not in coin machines, not un supermarkets, but near you - the Tabac.
Seita, the tobacco distribution monopoly is no longer owned by the state - it has been quoted on the bourse since last year - nor is it technically a 'monopoly,' except that it effectively controls 99.9% of the French market. Although there is no way to bridge the philosophical gap between the treasury's income from tobacco tax and the health ministry's public health deficit, the Seita points out that it ensures the livelihood of 35,000 retailers throughout France - who, in many rural locations, may operate the only local commerce besides the post office. For many villages, if one or the other goes, that is the end of the village.
One of the national dishes of France, available everywhere, is the 'croque-monsieur.' This is a slice of 'wonder-bread' with a slab of cooked ham on it and grated cheese on top. In most bars these are grilled at the bar on demand from opening to closing times. 'Croque-monsieurs' do not vary greatly in price, quality, and are seldom made with imagination - they are simply for speed and survival. Most traditional French 'sandwiches' are simple and robust - a mini-baguette, slash of butter, and a slice of ham; and they require strong teeth.

I mention the universal 'croque-monsieur' because it is the minimum staple of food in a bar-tabac. This minimal state of affairs has opened the door to fast-food outlets, that do not provide the variety of services of a typical Bar-Café-Tabac, but do provide a somewhat greater variety of food - usually suitable for people with soft teeth. There is actually invention in this sector as local imagination is starting to compete with the imported US models.

A newcomer in this department is the Italian import from the 16th century, called the 'Bruschetta.' This is a wonderful thing indeed: a door-stopper-sized slab of real bread, rubbed with garlic, spread with olive oil, seasoned with oregano, and topped with - with whatever you feel like. The whole conglomeration is grilled in a gas-fired flying saucer and served on a wooden board, and eaten with the fingers. A Bruschetta is more simple to make and heat than a pizza, more filling, and definitely more tasty - unless, of course, you can find real Italian pizza itself.

Coffee machine
Dream machine makes dream coffee
expressly for you.
Otherwise, many bar-tabacs are much more ambitious in the culinary department: they have minuscule kitchens and serve multi-course meals. 'Brasseries' as such are a step further up the scale, and are similar to 'gasthofs' in Germany, with full-sized kitchens and menus. The ultimate is a combination Café - Bar - Tabac - Brasserie with a PMU and a newsstand.

Today was another 'professional' day at the Bar-Café-Tabac salon, so there was plenty of elbow-room, and no waiting in line to talk to the people operating the stands. I mentioned how quiet and peaceful it was to a pretty lady selling cigarettes. She suggested I stay around until five when everybody would need a pick-me-up and all the exhibitors would gather at the various bars - then it would be party time at the salon.

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